When the Arab Spring uprisings broke out earlier this year, many foreign-policy experts were alarmed that the revolts took the White House by surprise and concerned by the Obama administration’s lackadaisical response. Washington adopted a hands-off policy toward the sweeping political changes, arguing that the people of the region should be free to chart their own destiny. “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity,” President Obama said in May. In his typically weak manner, he also cautioned that, “we must proceed with a sense of humility.”
Consequently, the humble U.S. administration abrogated any strong leadership role in guiding the change that was under way. Muslim extremists realized they were being presented with an opportunity to assume power and began that process. Obama administration cheerleaders watched unconcerned from the sidelines, maintaining either that radical takeovers would not happen, would not matter or would be a positive outcome. The idea that Islamists would not come to power is quickly being disposed of.
In Tunisia, the once-banned Ennahda or Renaissance Party, which promotes Shariah-based rule, won the plurality of the vote in Sunday’s elections to the new Constituent Assembly. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which earlier had said it would stay out of electoral politics, is favored to dominate the parliamentary and presidential races scheduled for the coming months. In Libya, National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil repaid NATO’s support for his revolution by declaring, “Any law that violates Shariah is null and void legally,” reintroducing polygamy and banning interest payments in banks. The State Department lamely wrote this off to “Islamic-based democracies wrestl[ing] with the issue of establishing rule of law within an appropriate cultural context.” The proper U.S. response would have been to strongly denounce these moves and threaten to withhold all of the approximately $30 billion in frozen Libyan government assets in the United States.
The rise of the Islamists constitutes a major step backward for modernization and progress. Arab women are seeing their rights reduced, reversed or destroyed. Middle-class businessmen will find it more difficult to interact with the global economy. Religious minorities, primarily Christians, are being subjected to increasing violence and intimidation. When Foggy Bottom simply natters about “cultural contexts,” the signal to the extremists is “full steam ahead.”
There is no strategic upside in any of this change for the United States. The new post-authoritarian Islamist governments will have no particular affinity for America or its values. Regional partners, particularly Saudi Arabia, are alarmed that the Obama administration was so willing to throw longtime allies like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus. The Israelis are watching as more than 30 years of carefully constructed and rigorously maintained stability are being washed away. Meanwhile, those governments Washington would like to see fall, in Syria and Iran, are persisting.
The Arab Spring is rapidly turning into an Islamist Winter.